Play It Again, Piano Man
by Cate Murway
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” George Bernard Shaw
Anyone ever try to steal your thunder, pop your balloon, or flat out squash your dreams?
Sometimes letting go and moving on will expand your life, expand your circle of friends and explode your business ideas and success in ways you could have never imagined.
Francis Xavier Danis, BHS ‘85 has always had an entrepreneurial spirit but there were times when not everyone saw his vision.
The youngest son of four children born to entrepreneurs, Mary Patricia [Riggio], a Wilkes Barre native and Francis J. Danis, a Bristol Borough High School ‘46 grad, jazz pianist Fran took piano lessons because “we all had lessons but my brother, Michael stayed with it the longest.”
All four Danis children attended St. Mark School. Mary Frances “MaryFran” Theresa Ziegler and Susan Marchione are both Villa Joseph Marie graduates. Michael Lee and Francis Xavier are Bristol Borough H. S. graduates.
Fran remembers there being a big stereo in their home but he recalls only hearing John Philip Souza records “from a Time- Life collection”.
Coincidentally, he shares his birthday with this American composer and conductor who is known particularly for American military and patriotic marches.
When Fran’s brother, Michael returned home from college, he “shared his vinyl” with his younger brother and young Fran became enamored with Armando Anthony "Chick" Corea, an American jazz pianist, keyboardist, and composer, one of the most influential and widely studied acoustic jazz figures in the last 40 years.
Fortunately, when Michael wanted to start playing the guitar, their father “made a brilliant suggestion to learn to play the piano first”.
He purchased a Wurlitzer Spinet for the children and the small upright piano with the full keyboard commanded their living room. Fran started lessons when he was just 9 years old and this was the beginning of his life-long love and passion for the piano.
Sister Virginita gave piano lessons in the convent after school.
“Instead of making a right to go home, I made a left. I remember the convent dining room table was always set for dinner, very pristine.”
Someone had gifted him with “a music book with big notes” and he learned to play “Feelings” and “The Alley Cat”. He has a fond recollection of his 6th grade recital.
A stage presence enticed him and he thought that being an altar boy would satiate that desire.
“I could be on stage, in front of everyone. I thought I would have more opportunities to do those Sunday noon masses with the choir and all; the big show. That wore off very quickly when I had to get up very early to do Mass for three people during the week.”
Some afternoons, “Lefty” also played baseball. He pitched, manned first base and played catcher with a first baseman’s mitt that he modified himself.
He also liked to jump things with his yellow Schwinn five-speed bike. “Remember Evil Knievel? Dare I say he was an inspiration?” He quickly grew out of that stage.
The keyboard beckoned and classical compositions also made an impact on the young musician. He preferred the renditions of the “manic and passionate” Frédéric Chopin.
“I made a cursory attempt to play the piano my senior year but I wasn’t very good.”
After graduation, he felt that he only had the labor skills he had acquired in the family food business.
His parents had begun their full service grocery store on Radcliffe Street before they purchased the 1700 Farragut Avenue [previously a pet store] location in 1957.
Fran cooked in the kitchen, preparing the foods for the day.
“I hated it. Nothing was fun.”
He studied Music Theory and Piano at Bucks County Community College in Tyler Hall, learning the various aspects of harmony of music and how to write music.
“I met the most amazing freak of a talent, Tom Lawton.”
The most notable influence was definitely Thomas Lawton. Fran was completely mesmerized by the adjunct music professor who also teaches at the University of the Arts and Temple University.
“I aspired to be something and I had a model of that person in my head. I happened upon that person and it was ‘Wow, I want to be like that’. His dexterity, his adroitness and his savageness mastering that enormous keyboard were awesome.”
Their musical ability admiration was mutual.
Professor Lawton shared, “When Fran played, he was not an ordinary student. Some students have ability but haven't much naturalness. Fran had both. Natural musicality can't be taught.”
Tom plays at the Loews Hotel and The Prime Rib in Philadelphia as well as freelance performances. He admires Fran’s good business sense and he appreciates keeping up with him via shared youtube presentations.
Fran never limited himself, thinking he had to have a career in any certain way.
What kept him motivated?
“Conviction and delusion, thinking I could do anything I wanted to do.”
He graduated from BCCC and transferred to Temple University and quit.
He stopped in his tracks. But the power of his dreams filled him with hope of a better future. He began playing a weekly jazz session in the interfaith community Pebble Hill Church in Doylestown and he performed with the Peter Craigie Jazz Corps quartet, off South Street in Philadelphia at the former Esmeralda’s.
He exudes confidence, energy and ambition, but he really prefers to work alone, at his own pace and in his own way. Thought, analysis, and introspection design his destiny and he shares his talent and love of music with his 30 some keyboard students
His first paid solo gig was local, “a party at Dr. Paul McIlvaine’s house”.
The mechanics of music fell into place for him as he developed a repertoire of at least 50 tunes and he booked a Christmas job for a big party in The Dorchester in Philadelphia in Rittenhouse Square. He enchanted the guests with music from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, classical pieces of virtuoso level.
“They hired me and kept me there for 15 years.”
He is unrelenting, spontaneous and exhibits unlimited ambition.
“I still want to be the most fantastic piano being you have ever seen or heard.”
Fran has developed his piano skills by exploring music on his own
and he continues to pound out multi-octave romantic ambiance selections,
fingers dancing out incredible sounds at the King George II Inn
on Radcliffe Street on Friday evenings.
A classically trained, former King George II employee, Adine Freed Koeppe stated,
“He is just such a nice man and his music was always so perfectly familiar and comforting.”
Fran’s parents happily celebrated their 84th birthdays at the King George with their son’s music in the background.
They clapped when he was finished and he smiled and nodded. “Thanks, mom!”
His sister, MaryFran and her husband, Jacques shared in the festivities.
“He’s very talented. He has a gift and he pursued it.”
C’mon in. You too will say, “Play it again, Fran!”
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Francis J. Danis
Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:00 am
Francis J. Danis passed away Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 at his home in Bristol, PA
He was 85.
Born in Bristol, he was a lifelong resident.
Francis started his career as a Butcher working for the A&P store in Bristol. He then established his own business and opened Danis's Market and operated it for 52 years before his retirement. He was a member of the Hibernians and the St. Ann's Club in Bristol.
He is survived by his wife, Mary P. (Riggio) Danis; four children, Mary Frances Ziegler (Jacques), Susan Marchione (Anthony), Michael Danis and Francis Danis; and four granddaughters, Carla, Danae, Caitlin and Madelaine. He was preceded in death by two brothers, Albert and Lee Danis.
Family and friends are invited to attend his viewing from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, at the Molden Funeral Chapel Inc., 133 Otter St., Bristol, PA. A service will immediately follow at 11 a.m. Interment is private.
To sign the online guestbook or send a condolence visit the Web address listed below. Molden Funeral Chapel Inc.